Venice Biennial Art Fair: the Golden Lion prize



The 53rd Venice Biennial Art Fair opens to the public on 7 June 2009. For six months it presents a panorama of global contemporary art in pavilions representing the artists and countries invited. Launched in 1895, the Venice biennial has a long tradition of selecting a handful of artists to receive its prestigious prizes. Do the Golden Lions – awarded parsimoniously over the years – constitute an accelerator for the price indices of the artists that receive them?

At its first edition in 1895, two artists were honoured with the prize: Giovanni SEGANTINI and Francesco Paolo MICHETTI. More than a century later these two portrait and genre painters have by no means been forgotten by the market. Indeed a couple of auctions in 2008 gave a shine to Francesco Paolo Michetti’s index, including a record for his Ritorno dai campi, a painting executed in 1875 representing a young shepherdess leading her flock under a heavy sky. The work sold for €110,000 on 18 November at Finarte in Milan raising his annual sales revenue average by close to 400%.
While the first Italian winners of the Lions have remained fairly restricted to their local market, things changed quite substantially in 1907 when the event first acquired a truly international dimension. Since the 1980s, the Lions have been awarded to artists from all over the world, some of whom are today among the most expensive on the planet, such as Jasper JOHNS (1988), Antoni TAPIES (1993), Gerhard RICHTER (1997) and CAI Guoqiang (1999).

The artists selected for the event may already enjoy a certain reputation in the milieu, but they do not always command substantial prices on the secondary market. History shows that a Golden Lion usually has the effect of a label providing a rapid boost to an artist’s auction prices. For example, in 2000, the French artist Pierre HUYGHE had only sold two works at auction for around €200 each at a provincial auction house in the Northern France (Armentières, for the oils on wood: les Glaneuses). After 2001, when he received a Lion, his works started to appear on the secondary market at some of the major auction houses in Paris (Cornette de Saint-Cyr, Christie’s) and then his Rue Longvic, Dijon (an offset print on cardboard) fetched €32,000 at Christie’s on 26 April 2006. Since 2008, his work has been finding its way into London sales catalogues (Phillips de Pury & Company and Christie’s). Likewise for the Iranian artist Shirin NESHAT who won a Lion in 1999 and whose Untitled (Woman Clasping Rifle) – her first work to be auctioned – quadrupled its estimate the following year when it sold for $16,000 at Sotheby’s in New York (18 May 2000).

Gerhard Richter, who came 7th in the 2008 Artprice Top10 revenue ranking, was already showing at the Venice Biennial and the Documenta de Cassel in 1972. Not until the 80s did his auctions prices acquire a certain weight, and the year he received the Golden Lion (1997), his best auction price was £410,000 ($677,000) for Ritorno dai campi at Sotheby’s in London (26 June). Over the following decade his price index progressed 450%… and in 2008 his work generated no less than 5 bids above the $10m line!

One of the world’s most expensive Chinese artists, Cai Guo-Qiang, won a Lion in 1999, well before the Chinese art price explosion (+255% between January 2005 and January 2008). Soon after the award, on 15 October 2000, he had his first auction appearance Christie’s Taipei office with a monumental drawing in canon powder (305 x 403 cm), that tripled its estimate when it fetched $95,000. In 2007 and 2008, his drawings of similar dimensions were changing hands for between $400,000 and $800,000 each. His personal record was set at Christie’s China branch in 2007 when a series of 14 drawings fetched the equivalent of 8.4 million dollars.
The 2009 awardee is German artist Tobias REHBERGER. There is no doubt that this reward will help boost his market that have been slow since 2006. Indeed no significant auction was recorded for any of the works of Martin KIPPENBERGER‘s former student since the £13,000 untitled luminous sculptures sold in Sotheby’s London (Oct. 13th, 2006).

In 2007, the Venice Biennial presented a pavilion of African art for the first time. This year, the event will be hosting works from the United Arab Emirates. In Dubai, the art market has been gaining momentum ever since Christie’s opened a branch there in 2006, followed by Bonhams in 2008. There is a strong chance we will see the Emirates’ artists who have been selected for Venice in the forthcoming catalogues of both auction houses…